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Is KDE the Answer?

Phil Hughes

Issue #66, October 1999

I see two problems: is looking like MS Windows good or bad, and is KDE a better answer than GNOME? Let's look at these one at a time.

Well, it depends on the question. Douglas Adams fans know the answer is 42, but they also know it was much harder to find the question.

KDE is largely the same. It offers a nice, user-friendly GUI. It can even look enough like MS Windows so that converts don't know they are being converted.

I see two problems: is looking like MS Windows good or bad, and is KDE a better answer than GNOME? Let's look at these one at a time.

Initially, I thought looking like MS Windows was good. After all, by looking like something people are used to, we get converts. In practice, however, I don't think this works. Sure, if you know how to click on “start browser” in the Windows environment, you know how to click on the same function in KDE. Unfortunately, it seems as if the actual result is that you are encouraging what I would call stupidity, but most would call computer illiteracy.

Why so? Because you have taken a group of people who think clicking on “start browser” means they understand computing and the Internet and reinforced their conclusion. It works on Windows and it works on Linux, so it must be true. Right? Nope, very wrong. All we have done is say, “If you don't get it, you can still use Linux.”

Don't get me wrong; this is a perfectly valid group of users. Building an “Internet appliance” based on Linux to appeal to this group seems like a good thing. After all, they need it, and Linux offers more functionality at less cost than a Microsoft-based alternative. However, this doesn't mean these people are now computer literate.

This is similar to the stories being told in the early '70s about how idiot-proof databases and such would eliminate the need for programmers, as I remember, by 1976. What happened? Did we not make all the software we needed? Programmers are still in demand, if for no other reason than to continue to write more idiot-proof programs as we watch the development of more sophisticated idiots.

Encouraging people who aren't computer literate to think they are is as dangerous as encouraging people who don't know how to drive to think they do. In either case, we end up with clueless people out there driving, whether on the streets of Ballard or on the Internet.

The next question is, is there anything we can do? Is there a way to make the streets or the Internet safe again? All we have to do is build that Linux-based appliance I talked about. Tell the users they are using a crutch—that they don't have a clue, but we are making up for it, using a Linux-based appliance. They will thank us.

For the rest of us—people who do need the power and grace of a real operating system—Linux is the right answer again. The difference is we know that underneath the “start browser” button, something is happening. We understand that armed with a terminal window and some knowledge of awk, grep, Perl, Bash, gcc, Python and much more, we can do some real computing work—like writing a better “start browser” button.

Now, on to the second question: Is GNOME a better answer than KDE? This is like asking if Apple picked the right kernel with NetBSD vs. OpenBSD, FreeBSD or Linux. It doesn't matter. They are all reasonable choices, and it is better to get on with life than go back and review already-made decisions.

In the KDE vs. GNOME war, KDE is ahead, offering more functionality and more programs than GNOME with development continuing at an amazing pace. The glitch in KDE development was the non-open licensing of Qt. In fact, that is what created GNOME development in the first place. With Qt 2.0, it is a non-issue. The Qt people saw the problem and created a new license that addresses it. To me, it seems hard to complain that the Qt developers think if you sell your product, you should have to pay for Qt. While it isn't the GPL, the idea of “if you are free, we are free” seems a fairly good rule to live by.

Most distributions have adopted KDE as their default and, as far as I know, all distributions include KDE. It isn't perfect, but is very usable. The kinds of problems you encounter are things like the default paper size being A4 and it taking a recompile to change it to letter. These kinds of bugs can be crushed quickly if we just get behind it and move it along.

Okay, I have put on my flame-proof suit, so I'm ready to say it. If we all, including the GNOME people, jump on the KDE bandwagon, we can soon create a better product with more features and fewer bugs. And, remember those appliance users I talked about? If we offer one standard GUI rather than two, it will be much easier to show we have something that might interest them.

Should the GNOME people be offended? No, not at all. Much as the GNU project helped make Linux happen, the existence of the GNOME project forced the rethinking of the Qt license and has contributed valuable ideas to KDE. By working together, everyone, including the application developer and the appliance user, benefits.

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